The Bechdel Test has been around for many years, but it’s only now that it is slowly creeping into the psyche of artists.
This is usually the time of year when theatre people get a little misty-eyed and think of the journey so far, and also the road ahead. Not just for themselves, but also for the art form as a whole. The World Theatre Day (March 27) gives all of us a chance to reminisce, celebrate, and give gyaan. Often the lens by which we see things is influenced by recent world events or artistic movements or personal life experiences. This year, my lens is the Bechdel Test.
According to Wikipedia, the Bechdel Test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.
The Bechdel Test has been around for many years, but it’s only now that it is slowly creeping into the psyche of artists. We are now looking at the world based on its rules, and seeing how inadvertently we might have been complicit in the under representation of women and propagation of female stereotypes.
I looked back at my own career and found that of the 15 or so plays that I have directed, only one third actually pass the test. That’s a scarily low number, particularly for someone who has often picked plays with strong female protagonists. But it’s only now, when I have the lens, can I truly appreciate my own contribution to the problem of under-representing women, rather than to the solution.
The problem is endemic. We have got so used to consuming and enjoying work which often places women in roles that revolve only around men that we are blind to the fact that we are pigeonholing them. Even female actors and writers are often unaware of their contribution to the general malaise. It is important to note that the problem is not one of willful misogynistic representation (for the most part), but of ignoring the fact that all characters need to be portrayed clearly as three dimensional characters.
Oftentimes it is the comedies which fare the worst on the Bechdel Test. particularly the bold romantic comedies. These comedies are largely from a male perspective, and the woman is usually reduced to a lovely but superficial commodity that is to be won. The humour comes from the objectification of body parts, and since the modern comedy is often short (under 80 minutes) and “quip-py”, even conversations are limited to being about “getting a man” or “wanting that boy”. There is an argument that the play is about relationships, so obviously all conversations are going to be about wanting a man. But then how is it that plays like OK Tata Bye Bye about commercial sex workers, or Dekh Behen about women at a Sangeet scouting for men, manage to also include conversations about dreams, careers, and aspirations; things that actually have nothing to do with a man?
The current and future generations of theatre makers need to be more aware than ever before about how our work is contributing to a larger gender narrative. The “arts” often play a game of hide-and-seek with reality, depending on when it suits us. Either we are staging it as is, when we think that’s what sells; or we are reflecting what people want, no matter how regressive or unbelievable it is. However, exercises like the Bechdel Test draw a direct line between what we create and the generational impact it has on society. We must use these tests as guides for the work that is to come, and for the choices in the work we make. We can’t rewrite Arthur Miller or Bertolt Brecht, but we can modify or update them to reflect a more holistic understanding and representation of women.
That’s what I wish on this World Theatre Day 2018: for our stages to become more sensitive, not just towards gender issues but also sexual orientation, race, class, caste, and more. The theatre, even when it is portraying our darkest aspects, should always make us better human beings. In an age of Harvey Weinsteins, Dadri lynchings, and Rohith Vemula, the theatre must take the lead: in its content, in its creative processes, in its artistic representations.
Quasar Thakore Padamsee is a Bombay-based theatre-holic. He works primarily as a theatre-director for arts management company QTP, who also manage the youth theatre movement Thespo.